It was 10:30 p.m. on Friday, March 7, 1941. With tensions rising in the Pacific and bombs falling on blacked out London — described poetically from the scene by local boy Edward R. Murrow — downtown Seattle itself was now suddenly plunged into darkness. Though the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was still nine months away, the city was the first in the nation to mount an intentional blackout of an American metropolis in preparation for war. In an eerie photo spread in Life magazine shot from atop the Northern Life Tower, Seattle became a temporary Atlantis, sinking beneath an inky sea of darkness for 20 minutes.
Americans sometimes forget that by the time Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, World War II had been underway for more than two years and momentous change had come to continental Europe. The Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Belgium, Holland, and The Netherlands. The British and French had been defeated at Dunkirk and evacuated to England. In June 1941, the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union.
As Europe crumbled, back in the United States we were lending and leasing, peacetime drafting, and America Firsting from the safety, comfort, and economic stimulation of the Arsenal of Democracy. Partly due to defense-related jobs, the Great Depression was receding into the distance, with retail spending in America jumping nearly 25 percent, from $44 million in 1940 to $54 million in 1941.
Just a few days before Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 2, radio legend Murrow, who was raised south of Bellingham and who had graduated a few years before from what was then called Washington State College in Pullman, had returned from London to be honored for his Blitz broadcasts. During a dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, Librarian of Congress (and poet and author) Archibald MacLeish famously told Murrow and a radio audience listening at home, “You burned the city of London in our houses and we felt the flames. You laid the dead of London at our doors and we knew that the dead were our dead, were mankind's dead, without rhetoric, without dramatics, without more emotion than needed be. You have destroyed the superstition that what is done beyond 3,000 miles of water is not really done at all.”
So when radio reports told Seattle listeners of an aerial attack on a faraway place — and a real blackout came to the cold and rainy city — on that certain Sunday 67 years ago, neither experience was completely unfamiliar.
Word of the attack on Pearl Harbor reached Seattle around 11:30 a.m. local time, and while shock and outrage was common all over the United States, residents of cities along the West Coast had the added element of palpable fear. The thinking was that if the Japanese could surprise the U.S. Navy in Hawaii, they could do the same to Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
Even clear-thinking elected leaders voiced their concern. Rep. Henry M. Jackson told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “I wouldn’t be surprised at all if an attempt is made to bomb Boeing’s, although I am confident we have the air forces here in the Northwest to protect it. What does surprise me to some degree is that a bombing assault was not made in this area at the same time as at Pearl Harbor. The fact it was made only at the latter point makes it appear more likely there will be none here, although I don’t want to minimize the possibility.”
It’s no surprise that Jackson, who would one day come to be known as "The Senator From Boeing," worked to promote the local airplane manufacturer, even in the midst of crisis. “This Boeing plant manufactures our most effective potential weapon against Japan, long-range bombers,” Jackson told the P-I. “These bombers can strike at the heart of Japan itself and it is only natural that the Boeing plant is one of Japan’s air objectives.”
Jackson, who had just returned to Everett from the nation’s capital on that Sunday, turned around and headed right back. Northwest Airlines even made a special stop at Paine Field to pick up Jackson for the late Sunday flight to Washington, D.C.
On the local level, preparations for the potential of war (such as the blackout drill) had been underway since 1940, and the various military and civil authorities swung into action quickly on Dec. 7. Seattle Mayor Earl Milliken slept in his office at the old County-City Building Sunday night, and the building became a 24-hour a day command center. Police officers were placed on 12-hour shifts, and some 3,000 volunteer air raid wardens took their posts in neighborhoods around the city. Though, because of a budget snafu, there were no air-raid sirens to alert anyone of possible attack.
All local military bases were put on alert and beefed-up security, including Fort Lawton in Magnolia, Sand Point Naval Air Station on Lake Washington, the Pier 41 Naval Base on the waterfront, as well as Fort Lewis, Fort Worden, Paine Field, McChord Field, and the Bremerton Navy Yard.
First World War veteran Brigadier General Carlyle H. Wash of the Second Interceptor Command, the branch of the Army charged with protecting Seattle from airborne attack, told the P-I, “It’s just exactly the same as it was back in ’17. We went from a peace to a wartime basis in quarter of an hour then, and that’s just what we did today.”
Along with Jackson, Rep. Warren Magnuson and Sen. Mon Wallgren also flew back to Washington, D.C., on Northwest Airlines on Dec. 7. Before boarding the plane at Boeing Field, Mongren told the P-I “War with Japan will be no pink tea and we are apt to suffer a few setbacks at the beginning.”
Back in Washington, Cougar alum Murrow, who had not yet returned to London, was scheduled to have dinner at the White House with the Roosevelts that Sunday. Murrow and his wife Janet assumed that the dinner would be canceled, but First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt called and said it was still on. The couple dined only with Mrs. Roosevelt and Janet went home soon after, but Ed Murrow had a private meeting late that night with President Roosevelt, who shared with Murrow far more details of the devastation than officially had been provided to other members of the press. Early the next morning, Murrow, for whom the WSU communication program is now named, anguished over what use he could make of what the president told him but ultimately decided it all had been off the record.
After dinner with the Murrows, the first lady was on the radio herself that night for her regular Sunday broadcast on NBC, sponsored by the Pan American Coffee Bureau. Two Roosevelt children lived on the West Coast — including daughter Anna Roosevelt Boettiger in Seattle — and Eleanor spoke of her concern for them in her broadcast.
Radio had proven its value as a news medium during the Munich Crisis of September 1938, and many Americans had followed developments in Europe via Murrow and other broadcasters throughout the first years of World War II. Radio coverage of Pearl Harbor was spotty, as there was no reliable means of voice transmission, and neither NBC nor CBS had correspondents stationed there. Further complicating radio’s role in Seattle on Dec. 7 was that stations were ordered or voluntarily chose to go off the air, to prevent their signals being used as homing beacons by enemy aircraft.
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